County Seat: Center * County Population: 25,448 (2010 Census)
The Historic Shelby County Courthouse is the only Irish castle-style courthouse remaining in the United States. Designed by Irishman John Joseph Emmett Gibson, the county capitol was completed in 1885 and is a National Register Property. Gibson used castles in his native Ireland for inspiration, hence the turrets, towers, and a frame cupola.
While the county conducts the majority of its business in a more modern courthouse, the historic courthouse is home to the Shelby County Veterans Office and is open for tours.
The county, created in 1836, was originally known as Tenaha; however, the name was changed upon the county’s organization in 1837 in honor of American Revolution hero Isaac Shelby.
As explained by June Rayfield Welch in “The Texas Courthouse Revisited,” the first session of court took place in the original county seat of Shelbyville underneath an oak tree.
“Since there was no jail, some imagination had to be exercised in punishments,” Welch wrote. “Once, the sheriff was told to take a convicted felon across the Sabine River, and ‘if he ever comes back or even wets his toe in the river, shoot him.’ ”
The town of Shelbyville declined during the Civil War and was voted out as the county seat in favor of Center.
“When the result was ignored, County Clerk R.L. Parker and surveyor Sam Weaver hauled the records 7 miles to the townsite donated by Jesse Amason and J.C. Wilson at the approximate heart of the county,” Welch explained. “Such were the origins of Center.”
The first courthouse in the new county seat was made of wood and burned in June of 1882. The eventual replacement was completed in 1885 for a cost of $26,000.
As one of the original three counties in the Republic of Texas, Shelby County boasts a rich history, evidenced by the Shelby County Museum, a three-building complex.
Unique historical facts include:
- Natives Sydney O. Penington and William Crawford were signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence.
- Richard Hooper, an early-day surveyor and congressman from Shelby County, was married to the niece of John Adams.
- The water oak tree on the Hern Lawson farm is the largest known of its type in the United States.
Speaking of trees, Shelby County is home to 357,700 acres of forestland. Townsfolk and visitors alike enjoy the Sabine National Forest and Toledo Bend Reservoir, along with the annual What-a-Melon festival every July and the Fox Hunt the last full week in March. In fact, the Shelby County Fox Hunt is the oldest organized fox hunt in the nation.
In 1948, the farming income from Shelby County was disappearing due to competitive prices of cotton from West Texas and tomatoes and watermelons from South Texas. To survive, it was imperative that the county and its farmers find an alternative revenue source. The Poultry Pioneers Plaza historical marker tells the story of five visionary leaders who helped lay the foundation to make Shelby County one of the largest poultry producers in Texas.